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Thanksgiving for Church Music – Sir Edward Bairstow

Sunday 14th May 2000
St Alban the Martyr, Holborn, London EC

Perhaps this morning we might take special emphasis on the final line of one of Sir Henry Baker's stanzas from his metrical text of Psalm 23:

 and home, rejoicing, brought me.

The beauty of holiness beloved of the psalmist has a profound meaning when applied to the music of he for whom we give thanks on this special Sunday. The imagination of those who instigated these commemorations in this lovely Church enables us all to share in a veritable combination of duty and delight almost half way through the Millennial Year.

The choral music at this morning's mass all comes from the pen of one of Yorkshire's greatest sons. A native of the county borough of Huddersfield, Edward Cuthbert Bairstow received his education in Nottingham and later in London, where he was articled as a pupil of the great Sir Frederick Bridge at Westminster Abbey. During his student days, he served as Organist of All Saints, Norfolk Square, Paddington where his vicar was William Boyd – composer of the saccharine tune "Pentecost" once much sung to the stirring text Fight the good fight with all thy might.

Bairstow's extraordinary commitment to his choirs first at Wigan Parish Church, then at Leeds, and – of course – ultimately at the Minster and Metropolitical Cathedral in York was legendary. He produced simply wonderful music for each foundation. While Wigan can boast the genesis of the immortal miniature Save us, O Lord and the evergreen Cradle Song, to Leeds belongs the mighty Communion Service in D, the magical introit Let all mortal flesh keep silence and the large-scale anthems Sing ye to the Lord and If the Lord had not helped me.

His York output sits alongside the period of his greatest influence, and is fascinating in its range of expression. Gradually, the ebullient Edwardian self-confidence gave place to a more contemplative style – possibly under the influence of the great ascetic scholar Dean and liturgist Eric Milner-White, whose kindness and generosity of spirit in Bairstow's last years must have been a great blessing for the fiery musician. It is clear from Francis Jackson's affectionate, yet vastly authoritative, biography that Bairstow did not find life all that easy. He certainly didn't suffer fools and abhorred humbug and pretension.

In terms of his music – its composition, rendition and (possibly most significantly) its style – it can be asserted that, perhaps, the verbal texts were paramount, supreme and underpinned all that Bairstow achieved as singing coach, teacher and composer. Pupils and students included the great lyric soprano Elsie Suddaby, one of the chosen singers for Vaughan Williams's Serenade to Music written in 1938 for Sir Henry Wood's Jubilee as a conductor.

Bairstow's verbal writings can have as much to teach us as his musical creations. Among the former, his great philosophical book Singing learned from Speech written in conjunction with his friend and professional colleague Plunket Greene is a rich repository of sound common sense.

The Anglican liturgy is much the richer for his fervent anthems. Many of them – once thought to be hopelessly over-romantic (whatever that might mean) have come back into favour.  The hymn-anthem he almost made his own. Essays range from the incandescent fervour of Blessed City –  written incidentally not for a great cathedral or choral foundation but for suburban choirs in Bradford – to the exquisite later works such as The King of Love and The Day draws on with golden light capable of presentation by choirs of modest resources but, as we know to our great joy and profound fulfilment this morning, transformed immeasurably by the very finest singing and playing.

It is interesting that the great majority of Edwardian and Georgian service settings for use during Holy Communion were the work of parochial organist-composers rather than their cathedral or collegiate colleagues. The standard fare of the period comes from the pens of Cornhill's Harold Darke, Chelsea's John Ireland or Croydon's George Oldroyd. But none match the scale and passion of Bairstow's 1913 D major mass – written as a leaving present for his Leeds Choir and designed specifically for the fine organ in the City's Parish Church which had been rebuilt by Arthur Harrison to ECB's specification. The most characteristic movements are perhaps those at the heart of the Mass – the wonderfully evocative Sanctus the awe-struck Benedictus and the expressive Agnus Dei. There is nothing like this music elsewhere in the repertoire. In the Gloria are to be found many of the motto themes from these movements with an outburst of joy at the fugue Thou only, O Christ, with the Holy Ghost which must stir even the most lukewarm of hearts. Yes, Bairstow certainly worked with wide brush strokes on a vast canvas.

And yet, we have special cause to be grateful for the magic of the miniatures which he left for us – I sat down under his shadow and As Moses lifted up the serpent spring at once to mind.  Many of us who work day in day out in quires and places where they sing would attest to the significant challenge of interpretation, performance and musical ensemble presented by his uniquely exquisite gradual Let my prayer come up into Thy presence as the incense from the 1937 Coronation. I don't know much of Bairstow's churchmanship, but someone who could conjure up in so many minds the swinging censer must have been a bit of a spike somewhere along the line.

And it is not only that elusive Coronation Gradual which offers such challenges to the performing musician. A memorable account – sometimes, ultimately frustratingly elusive – of the brief Evening Service in G and the evergreen Lamentation is a profoundly fulfilling experience for singer, player and worshipper alike. Both were written in the darkest days of the Second World War and both are shot through with pathos and bitter-sweet harmony of almost heart breaking beauty.

It is a mistake to think of Sir Edward writing from his ivory tower for only the best choirs. He showed himself thoroughly adept in later life at devising music for choirs of modest resources – even for unison, rather than four part ensembles. One of his most memorable pieces – Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels – is so scored as to be achievable for performance by only sopranos, altos and basses.

Bairstow was at heart an inherently practical musician who understood the potential for rhetoric like few others. He is a master of the grand gesture – intensely dramatic and reflective by turn.

In terms of music, he proves himself time and again the equal of those compelling preachers of the gospel who have led us in our personal quests for the deepening of faith.

Nowhere is this morning's composer so fervent of utterance than in his mighty war-time setting of verses from Psalm 90 beginning Lord, Thou hast been our refuge composed for the annual festival of the Corporation of the Sons of the Clergy held at St Paul's Cathedral in 1917. Like Walford Davies, we discern a real sense of profound loss experienced by a great teacher as young men for whose musical education Bairstow had been primarily responsible were cut down in the prime of youth by the senseless slaughter of that infamous "War to end all Wars".  After the first read-through on piano, not all the magic springs forth from the page in the same way as during our special act of worship today. But, when first coming across the work, I well remember going home and waking up the following morning with all the motto themes chasing themselves around one's sub conscious in the manner akin to the slow turning of a child's kaleidoscope.

It is my great good fortune to sustain both a warm personal and strong professional relationship with Bairstow's distinguished successor, Francis Jackson.  In the most ideal of worlds, and everything being equal, he would have proved a far worthier focus of thought on the object of our thanksgiving this morning. But we rejoice that, through him, so many of us have been led to a greater understanding of his extraordinary teacher – visionary, spiritual creative artist, and enhancer of Anglican liturgy world-wide. Of his time, yes – certainly; but perhaps timeless in respect of the degree of intensity which he brought to all his musical compositions and the remarkable fervour of his creative output in the service of the Church.

When our own time comes to be called home, may we find ourselves brought rejoicing to that place without noise, nor silence but with "one equal music".

For Church Music, and today, particularly, for Edward Cuthbert Bairstow,

Thanks be to God.

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